I learned a wonderful lesson in humility yesterday. It made me realise that even though we may like to convince ourselves that we do not think of ourselves as ‘better’ or ‘different’ to other people, we actually subconsciously do. It also made me realise that many of us really have no real understanding of just how others may feel about their circumstances.
I went shopping with my wife at a Macro store, which is a large chain of stores in South Africa. Of course we have to take with us my portable oxygen machine plus the wheelchair for me to get around. I literally cannot walk for more than 30 to 60 metres without ending up gasping for air, even with the oxygen machine.
My wife is a real saint in letting me accompany her shopping. This is because even in the wheelchair I cannot propel myself more than a short distance before I am also out of breath, gasping for air. So Greir needs to push me in the wheelchair, which makes shopping a real challenge because what does one do with the shopping trolley.
Well we actually have the trolley situation figured out. We do it in relays. Trolley gets left a few aisles further along from where we start browsing. Then Greir pushes me in the wheelchair and we browse the aisles. Anything we decide to buy goes onto my lap until my lap is too full for anymore. Then Greir takes the items from my lap to the trolley. As we progress through the shop the trolley is moved to the next convenient location ahead of us and left there for us to repeat the process.
The most frustrating thing about this process is that, believe it or not, sometimes people actually unpack the trolley and take the trolley. This is presumably because they cannot be bothered going to the front of the shop to fetch their own trolley as we did. That then results in us having to start shopping from the beginning again.
At the end of the shopping Greir will generally park me in my wheelchair near the exit. There I then wait for her while she goes through the till to pay.
Yesterday, as I sat relaxing outside the exit in the cool breeze, watching people passing by, a sweet old lady came up to me and offered me money. She believed that I was a beggar. I had to explain to her that I was merely waiting for my wife who was paying for our shopping. She was obviously terribly embarrassed and I did my very best to assure her that I was not offended, which I really was not. I thanked her for being considerate enough to want to help someone who she perceived was in need of help. It really was very kind of her.
I however then suddenly began to feel exceptionally awkward and, to be entirely honest, terribly embarrassed about sitting outside that shop. I did not like the idea that anyone may be looking at me and thinking of me as a charity case. I no longer wanted to make eye contact with the people passing by. I hauled out my iPhone in the hope that it would at least be a clear sign to all passing me by that I was not a beggar.
This episode had a profound effect on me. It made me realise two things:
The first is that I have never truly understood what people feel like when they are forced into a situation of having to beg for money. It is too easy to be judgemental about them being lazy and goodness knows what else we may say about beggars. The truth is that we have absolutely no idea of just how humiliating the experience can be and we simply should not judge. Instead we should as a rule treat that person with the greatest of respect and sensitivity. Perhaps more so than someone who is not in that position?
The second lesson is that we should remember that we are in reality no different to the next person. Just a minor change in the scenario - my wife leaving me alone outside that shop - had suddenly made me appear to other people as no different to any other beggar, at any other shopping centre. Thereby illustrating just how similar we all really are and how it is only our circumstances that make us different to other people.